Joséphine de Beauharnais: how Napoleon's muse became empress of France
She was Napoleon’s muse, empress of France, and above all a survivor. Dr Laura O’Brien explores how Joséphine de Beauharnais reinvented herself after the Reign of Terror, and her fractious relationship with Napoleon
The relationship between Napoleon Bonaparte and his first wife, Joséphine, is as central to Ridley Scott’s new biopic of the French emperor as his military prowess and dramatic rise and fall. In the words of the erstwhile Madame Bonaparte (played by Vanessa Kirby) to her husband (Joaquin Phoenix): “You are nothing without me.”
The real story of the woman who would become Empress of France in December 1804 spans the Atlantic world and revolutionary upheaval, and shows that there is much more to Joséphine than the often quoted “Not tonight…”
Who was the real Joséphine?
The future Empress Joséphine was born Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie on 23 June 1763 at her family’s sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Martinique (then a French colony and now part of the French Republic’s overseas departments and territories).
Among her family and childhood friends, she was usually called Yeyette, sometimes Rose. It was Napoleon who began to call her Joséphine shortly after their first meeting.
La Petite Guinée, the Tascher de la Pagerie family plantation, had formed part of her mother’s dowry – along with the estimated 300 or so enslaved people who lived and worked there. Slavery, therefore, was a simple fact of life for the young Yeyette.
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She enjoyed a privileged, carefree childhood thanks to the relative wealth of her mother’s family, wealth that had been made and secured by enslaved labour. Following the death of her maternal grandfather in 1766, however, the Tascher de la Pagerie family’s fortunes and social standing went into steady decline, thanks to the mismanagement of the plantation by Joséphine’s spendthrift father, Joseph.
Joséphine before Napoleon
In 1779, at the age of 16, Joséphine married for the first time. The marriage was arranged by Joséphine’s aunt, keen to shore up her own status and that of the extended family.
The chosen suitor, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was the legitimate son of her aunt’s aristocratic French lover, François de Beauharnais.
Alexandre was originally betrothed to Catherine-Désirée, one of Joséphine’s younger sisters; he considered Joséphine, just two years younger than himself, too old to make an attractive wife.
Nonetheless, Catherine-Désirée’s death from tuberculosis meant that it was Joséphine who would fulfil the arrangement and move to France to marry Alexandre. Settling in Paris, the couple had two children: Eugène, born in 1781, and Hortense, born in 1783.
Joséphine’s life as the Viscountess de Beauharnais was financially comfortable, but personally miserable. Alexandre rapidly proved himself to be a serial philanderer only too willing to smear his young wife’s reputation, accusing Joséphine of having affairs and calling into question the paternity of their daughter. He eventually forced his wife out of their home and into a convent, placing their young children with a nanny.
With divorce impossible, Joséphine fought for a fair separation and settlement and eventually secured it: Alexandre was to pay her appropriate maintenance, and she would have sole custody of Hortense, and of Eugène until he reached the age of five.
Even so, her survival instincts had to kick in. She relied heavily on her family in order to provide for her children, as Alexandre rarely paid her the maintenance she was entitled to.
Joséphine during the French Revolution
Separation from her aristocratic husband was not enough to save Joséphine from the so-called ‘Reign of Terror’ during the French Revolution, which saw perceived enemies of the fledgling republic targeted by those newly in power.
Alexandre had fought in the revolutionary armies, but was denounced as a ‘suspect’ in March 1794 by virtue of his background.
Condemned by association, Joséphine was incarcerated too, and endured several months in prison. Alexandre went to the guillotine in July 1794. Four days later, the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, a key architect of the violent revolutionary policy, ended the Terror. Once again, Joséphine had survived.
How did Joséphine meet Napoleon?
In the immediate aftermath of the revolutionary Terror, Joséphine became a prominent figure in Parisian high society, earning a reputation for having affairs with powerful men including high-ranking military officers and politicians.
Though she was described by the politician Paul Barras (one of her lovers) as merely a “lustful Creole” with only her own interests at heart, Joséphine’s affairs must also be understood as the actions of a penniless widow and mother keen to secure protection for herself and her children.
Joséphine’s presence in Parisian society of the mid-1790s eventually brought her into contact with a 26-year-old artillery officer who was still signing his name ‘Buonaparte’. Various stories exist about their first meeting in the autumn of 1795: some say it happened at a bal des victimes, the raucous parties held in Paris after the Terror; other sources tell how the 14-year-old Eugène de Beauharnais visited General Bonaparte to seek permission to retain his father’s sword, leading to a fateful meeting with the boy’s mother.
The truth is probably more prosaic, given that both Joséphine and Napoleon were moving in the same social circles and likely to have attended the same salons and house parties.
Napoleon did not cut a particularly dashing figure in late 1795, with contemporaries recalling his gaunt face and figure, the sallow tinge to his skin, and the rather limp, long hairstyle he wore at the time. He was immediately attracted to the 32-year-old Joséphine, with all her worldly experience and powerful connections, but it took his future wife rather longer to come round
Napoleon’s biographer, Philip Dwyer, describes theirs as “an ardent, if rather lopsided, affair”: while the young general was completely besotted, sending her love letter after love letter, Joséphine remained ambivalent. She eventually agreed to marry him, recognising that he was on the rise and that he might provide security and protection. In March 1796 they married in a civil ceremony in Paris, for which the groom was two hours late.
The truth of “You are nothing without me”
Napoleon’s wedding present to Joséphine was a gold pendant inscribed with the words ‘To Destiny’. The token hints at a couple bound together by mutual ambition, with Joséphine – as the line from Ridley Scott’s 2023 film implies – perceived to have played an important role in her husband’s rise to power.
- Read more about the historical accuracy of Ridley Scott's Napoleon
Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon crowns Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) as his empress. (Image by Apple Original Films)She herself may have suspected that Bonaparte was using her to boost his career, though his letters were quick to disavow any suggestion that he “did not love her for love alone”. His immediate acceptance of her very modern marriage contract, which ensured she retained control of her own money, indicates the extent to which he respected as well as admired her.
Though Joséphine was, on paper, better connected than her young husband when they met, by the time of their marriage his star was firmly on the rise, regardless of who he was romantically involved with. Indeed, had he not been in the ascendant it’s unlikely she would have reciprocated his interest in her.
Equally, she was not a driving force behind his decision to assume the title of emperor. If anything, Joséphine feared a crown would only make Napoleon divorce her due to her inability to have children (of which more below).
Her influence is sometimes cited as a factor in Napoleon’s support for the reintroduction of slavery in French colonial territories, by virtue of her family background and connections to plantations in Martinique.
Slavery had been abolished in 1794, but political and economic pressure from Britain and America as well as economic concerns were putting its reimposition back on the agenda. Joséphine helped to facilitate the appointment of pro-slavery advisers, including a distant relative, but it seems that their input – like hers – was not a crucial influence or deciding factor in shaping Napoleon’s policies in the Caribbean.
In the latest in our series charting the contested reputations of key historical figures, Laura O’Brien and David Andress discuss French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and explore why his story still proves divisive two centuries later
Why did Napoleon annul his marriage to Joséphine?
The most obvious explanation for Napoleon’s decision to end his marriage to Joséphine in 1809 is undoubtedly her inability to have more children.
He had briefly considered divorce early in their marriage, when the extent of her infidelities became clear, and later when she reacted badly to his own affairs.
Having become emperor in 1804, establishing a hereditary regime in France, the question of an heir became more pressing for Napoleon. He had adopted Eugène de Beauharnais, Joséphine’s son by her first marriage, and there was nothing to preclude the young man from inheriting the throne – indeed, Eugène’s experience as a soldier and administrator may have made him a good choice.
Moreover, Napoleon clearly knew by the time he crowned Joséphine as empress – eight years after their marriage – that they were unlikely to have biological children. The birth of several illegitimate children from the emperor’s affairs, proving that he was not infertile, made up his mind.
Napoleonic biographers argue that the emperor’s desire for a male heir by blood was part of a plan to consolidate his regime through a connection with one of the other European royal families. Leaving Joséphine would open the door to remarrying a (younger) princess, and the birth of a son would secure the place of the ‘Corsican upstart’ among ‘legitimate’ monarchies. This plan eventually came to fruition when Napoleon married Marie-Louise of Austria (22 years his junior) in 1810, with a son born in 1811.
Joséphine was devastated when Napoleon informed her of his decision to end the marriage. His extended family, however, were thrilled. The Bonapartes had always loathed the ‘old woman’ they felt had stolen him from the clan.
In time, Joséphine and Napoleon would build a lasting friendship as a divorced couple, and she remained a confidant of his until the end.
What happened to Joséphine after her divorce?
Joséphine’s divorce settlement granted her the Chateau of Malmaison, outside Paris, which she had purchased as a marital home in 1799, as well as the Chateau of Navarre and the title of Duchess of Navarre.
She spent the remaining years of her life between her two properties, tending her gardens – her estate at Malmaison, in particular, was renowned for its collection of exotic plants and animals – and maintaining her role as a society figure. A lifelong spendthrift, Joséphine relied on Napoleon for financial support until the end.
In the spring of 1814, Napoleon abdicated and entered into exile on Elba. It was there that he learned of Joséphine’s death from pneumonia, on 29 May 1814.
Witnesses stated that he shut himself away for two days after hearing the news, refusing to see or speak to anyone. When he died on Saint Helena on 5 May 1821, it is said – depending on who one believes – that his last words were “France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine”.
Laura O’Brien is associate professor at Northumbria University